Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a plant native to Southeast Asia and has become naturalized in most tropical regions. West Indian lemongrass, as it is also known, is part of the Panicoideae subfamily comprising more than three thousand five hundred plants. Many agricultural crops fall into this family, including maize, sugarcane, and sorghum.
Lemongrass is a popular herb used in cooking, tea, or traditional medicine. The way it is used in traditional meals differs between countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, but it is a firm staple in many everyday meals.
Lemongrass tea is used as a warm tea or a cool refreshing drink, sometimes infused with a selection of different herbs. Medicinally lemongrass is used as an anti-parasitic, to reduce anxiety, as a calming agent, and to clear chest infections.
In warm areas, lemongrass is an easy-to-grow addition to any garden. Not only is it useful, but it is an attractive plant to fill in a garden bed or as a feature plant. Typically, the blue-green linear-shaped grass blades grow to eighteen to thirty-six inches long. A single tuft will multiply over time to become an attractive clump with a spread a few feet across and about four feet tall, perfect for dividing.
If your climate does not allow you to grow lemongrass, plenty of alternatives may suit your garden just as well.
1. Citronella Grasses
There are a few varieties of citronella grass, and they are differentiated as Java citronella (Cymbopogon nardus) or Ceylon citronella (Cymbopogon winterianus). Both varieties belong to the subfamily Panicoideae just like lemongrass does. Citronella grasses are native to Asia and Malaysia. Citronella grass is often mistaken for lemon grass due to its similar citrus-like fragrance.
Citronella grasses can grow to six feet tall and have an extensive root system. The deeper roots result in the citronella grass plants reaching ages over ten years. Citronella leaves are wider than lemon grass, and the citronella leaf often presents a purple or red color at the base of the stem. This coloration is absent in lemongrass.
Citronella and lemongrass are both useful plants, but citronella is not used as food. It is not palatable at all, and not even cattle will graze on it. On the other hand, both citronella grass and lemongrass are able to repel mosquitoes. Citronella grass is grown commercially for this citrus-fragranced oil which is used for cosmetics, as a perfume, and as an insect repellant.
2. Foxtail Fountain Grass
Foxtail fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) also has its origins in Asia and Australia but grows well in most coastal areas where the temperature does not fall below twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit. Foxtail fountain grass also goes by names like swamp foxtail grass and Chinese Pennisetum. Foxtail fountain grass is an easy growing perennial in the Poaceae family that is mainly grown as an ornamental grass.
Clumps of foxtail grass can grow up to three feet tall and spread to the same size. Smaller varieties are available for small gardens and grow only twelve inches tall. The leaves are narrower than lemongrass at only half an inch wide. Leaves change color throughout the year, starting with deep green leaves in summer and turning golden in fall.
Foxtail fountain grass gets its name from the fluffy foxtail-like flowers of this grass. The color of these large arched flowers can range from reddish to purple to copper.
3. Fakahatchee Grass
Fakahatchee grass (Tripsacum dactyloides) also goes by Eastern gamagrass. Fakahatchee grass is a member of the Poaceae plant family and a distant relative of corn. Fakahatchee grass is native to the United States of America and the northern region of South America.
Like lemongrass, Fakahatchee grass grows as clump grass that grows to around six feet tall and the same width. A dwarf variety (Tripsacum floridanum) grows to half this size as a smaller garden variety. Fakahatchee grass leaves and stems are hairless and have a purplish color. The leaves grow to more than four feet long, and the edges have small sharp serrations.
Fakahatchee Grass was once used extensively as a fodder crop for cattle, but today it is used mainly as an ornamental grass. That does not mean that this plant is not useful, though. The thick rhizome roots make Fakahatchee grass ideal for stabilizing slopes while being an attractive feature plant. In addition, Fakahatchee grass will also attract Byssus Skipper butterflies to your garden.
4. Chinese Silver Grass
Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is also called porcupine grass, Eulalia grass, or Zebra grass and is native to eastern Asia. A perennial in the Poaceae family, Chinese silver grass has many varieties that range in color and size. Dwarf varieties grow to three feet in height, with bigger varieties reaching between seven and ten feet tall.
The long Chinese silver grass leaves are slightly wider than a half inch and have an arching growth pattern. Varieties like zebra grass have lighter colored bands in the leaves, strikingly contrasting with the darker green leaf.
Unlike lemongrass, silver grass forms eye-catching plumes that are carried higher than the plant’s leaves. These plumes are striking and range in color from silver to pink and purple. While any variety of Chinese silver grass makes a beautiful addition to a garden, care needs to be taken to ensure it does not spread and get out of hand.
5. Pampas Grass
The name pampas grass (Cortaderia) is commonly used for all species of Cortaderia, but technically it is the name for Cortaderia selloana. This fast-growing member of the Poaceae family of plants is a purely ornamental grass.
Pampas grass is adorned with large fluffy seed plumes that range in color from silver white to shades of pink. These plumes are carried on seed stalks that extend above the sharply serrated leaves of the pampas grass. Pampas grass grows as tall as thirteen feet and can easily spread six feet wide. This makes pampas ideal to grow as a windbreak, fence, or divider.
Pampas grass grows fast, has few pests, and can grow in most soil types, making it seem like the ideal grass to plant. A word of caution is needed, though, as the beautiful plumes of a single plant can produce millions of seeds. For this reason, planting pampas grass is prohibited in some states and some countries. It is best to plant a sterile variety to prevent pampas from self-seeding and getting out of hand.
6. Dixieland Grass
Dixieland grass (Miscanthus sinensis Dixieland), also called Eulalia grass, is a native plant of China, Japan, and Korea that has become naturalized in the United States. Dixieland grass is a miniature variety of Chinese silver grass. Dixieland grass grows in clumps about four feet tall and four feet wide.
Dixieland grass leaves are about three-eighths of an inch wide and arch in a fountain-like fashion. The Dixieland grass variety is a variegated version of silver grass with cream-colored stripes that contrast with a deep green along the length of the leaf.
Dixieland grass also produces pink-colored seed plumes in late summer to create a beautiful display. Dixieland is ideal for growing around the verge of a water feature or as a border plant. The smaller size of Dixieland grass makes it more versatile than Silver grass in small gardens, and it can even grow as a container plant.
7. Prairie Cordgrass
Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), also known as slough grass and rip gut, is a member of the Poaceae family that grows well in coastal marshes. Prairie cordgrass is a tough perennial that grows as dense clumps up to seven feet tall and equally wide.
Cordgrass is hardy with dark green leaves that arch over and have very sharp edges giving rise to the common name of rip gut. It is believed that accounts by midwestern settlers about grass that grew higher than their horses were referring to Prairie cordgrass.
Prairie cordgrass grows equally well in freshwater and saltwater coastal marshes and is an ideal addition to coastal gardens. If prairie cordgrass has enough water, it will even grow in rocky soil. Prairie cordgrass can be propagated by means of its strong rhizomes. These rhizomes also make prairie cordgrass ideal for securing slopes and preventing erosion along water courses.
8. Frost Grass
Frost grass (Spodiopogon sibiricus) also goes by Siberian graybeard and silver spike. Frost grass is native to Mongolia, Siberia, China, and Korea. Frost grass grows as perennial clump grass and is tolerant of cooler weather.
Frost grass grows between three and five feet high as lush clumps. The leaves are light green but will start to show purple or deep red coloration late in the season. In late summer, frost grass puts out flowers that grow. Fourteen to eighteen inches taller than the leaves.
Frost grass is ideal for cooler regions, where it will grow in full sunlight. In hot climates, frost grass grows more slowly, and it would be better to plant it in partial shade. Frost grass clumps grown together display well as border plants or as a feature in their own right.